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Leading a stressed employee is never pleasant, and it can make you feel like you’re doing a terrible job. However, I’ve noticed that there is sometimes a misconception about what causes stress.

The default seems to the assumption that people become stressed because of overwhelming workloads. While of course workload can be a cause of stress, there are so many other factors in our complex workplaces that may be at play.

In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the common causes of stress in many workplaces. Use these to help you diagnose what might be bothering your people!

Signs of a Stressed Employee

Before we go into the causes of stress, let’s start with the signs of stress. Stress affects everyone differently, but there are some common signals that you might notice in a stressed employee.

Some common signs of a stressed employee might include:

  • Mood changes. A normally happy person who becomes angry or irritable might be experiencing stress. Or a usually calm person may show signs of being overly worried or anxious.
  • Withdrawal. Someone who is usually highly engaged with the team may start to withdraw from the group and start to do more things on their own. This can be a sign of a stressed employee.
  • Absence. Someone who is absent from work for long periods may be feeling stressed. People may also become sick more easily when they are under stress.
  • Long hours. People who are working longer hours than usual may be experiencing stress, and trying to work longer to keep up.
  • Physical symptoms. A normally healthy team member who complains of physical issues like heartburn, fatigue or headaches may be experiencing stress.

Signs of stress can often be observed by looking for differences from an employee’s normal situation. When a team member changes their regular routine or starts to show signs like those listed above, this can be a warning sign.

Learn More:  How Leaders Can Identify Mental Health Issues.

What’s Behind that Stressed Employee? Here Are Some Common Causes.

There are many causes of stress in the workplace that might not actually be so obvious. If you’re spotting the signs of stress in your team, use this list as a starting point for a conversation to see if you can pinpoint the problem.

Of course, stress may come from external sources too, outside of the workplace. Leadership support is important in these cases but for now, we’ll focus at the in-work causes.

1. An Inability to Complete the Work

Having too much work to do is one thing, but feeling like you’re unable to complete it properly is stressful.

I have rarely experienced team members who come to work intentionally looking to do a bad job and disrupt the workplace. Most people are looking to do good work. When they feel like they can’t, this can result in significant stress.

So why might people feel like they can’t complete the work?

Firstly, it might be because they don’t have the skills or experience to complete the task or feel confident while doing it. Perhaps the work is above their skill level, or something they’ve never encountered before.

Stressed leader

Next, a stressed employee may lack the right resources to complete the work properly or efficiently. This may cause them to need to spend far more time than they might if they had the right tools or support.

This can also come about because there are significant challenges caused by the work environment or company processes. What might seem like a simple job can take much longer when slowed down by bureaucracy or uncooperative stakeholders.

Learn More:  Is Your Team Struggling? Understand Workplace Stress to Lead Better.

2. Unclear Roles & Responsibilities

When team members are unsure about what exactly they’re supposed to be doing, stress is the result.

This is worse when there is a whole team who are a little unsure about who does what. This situation can result in rework, or work that is never finished at all because everyone thought it was somebody else’s problem.

Finger pointing

Unclear expectations can also play into this situation. If you delegate work without sufficient information for the team member, they may stress themselves out trying to work out what they’re supposed to do.

Role clarity is key for helping people feel like they can do a good job, and knowing that when they spend effort, they’ll get the required results.

Learn More:  Roles and Responsibilities Unclear? Do This.

3. Underperforming Colleagues

Stress isn’t just caused by what’s going on inside a team member. The actions or inactions of colleagues can also play a large part in creating stress.

When some team members aren’t performing and others are, the high performers are likely to feel stressed because of the frustration they experience.

“I’m doing all this work while they get away with hardly doing anything!”

This sort of stress is likely to come in the form of mental and emotional turmoil, rather than the heart-pounding panic of “I have so much work to do” stress.

A stressed employee in this situation may feel torn. They’re putting in a lot of effort, while another person is “getting away with murder”. This can have them thinking … “Why should I even bother?”

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #55: The Importance of Consequences for an Effective Workplace.

4. Dysfunctional Team Dynamics Can Create a Stressed Employee

The way that team members interact can have a huge bearing on stress levels in the team.

This may not have to do with work performance. Instead, it may be more to do with the behaviour and personal interactions between team members.

Difficult Work RelationshipFor example, working with a grumpy or passive-aggressive colleague can be stressful.

During my consulting days, I was often placed in situations where I would need to lead a team of client employees who didn’t necessarily want me to lead them.

In these situations I was seen as an outsider. It took a lot of time and effort to build trust to the point where they would feel more comfortable working with me. This took an emotional toll, and I’d often find myself exhausted from dealing with situations where I’d need to convince difficult people to follow my lead.

Watch the dynamics of your team. Are there team members who don’t get along? People who often engage in conflict, or perhaps people who steamroll others in the team?

All of these scenarios can lead to the outcome of a stressed employee.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #121: Difficult Colleague? Let’s Improve the Relationship.

5. Lack of Fulfilment and Motivation In the Role

Another common cause of employee stress occurs when they feel unfulfilled or lack motivation in their role.

Once again, this can result in team members feeling emotionally torn and distressed. Even if a team member is unmotivated, they may still feel compelled to try to do a good job for the team, and for you, the leader.

But over time, this can cause significant stress as the employee feels like the path they are walking is not the right one for them. They know that if they keep going, they’ll just keep doing more of the same thing, even though it’s not what they really want to be doing.

The reasons for a lack of motivation can be many and varied, but it’s worth understanding the desired career path and aspirations for people in your team. This can help you to try to align their work with their overall direction, and you’ll likely see improved motivation as a result.

For more ideas about tackling motivation challenges, try the additional resources below.

Learn More:  4 Types of Motivation to Look For In Your Team.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader #71: A Simple Model for Team Motivation.

Learn More:  Motivation at Work: Moving Your People Along the Motivation Spectrum.

6. Uncertainty and Constant Changes

Some of your people will be able to handle uncertainty, and not knowing quite what’s coming next.

This might be because of changes to your industry or organisation, or simply because people are constantly being caught by surprise from changing priorities.

Others will find this extremely stressful.

Will I have a job?

I can’t focus because things keep changing!

Will I be able to complete the work?

What changes are coming and how will they affect me?

Do I have the skills to work in the new way they are introducing?

Uncertainty can come in many forms, often involving change.

If you can plan, prepare and communicate openly and honestly to keep your people in the know, they’ll be more able to deal with what’s coming. Setting priorities also helps… and sticking to them is even better!

You may not have all the solutions to reduce change and uncertainty, but at least being honest will help people to see you’re working on it.

Learn More:  How Leaders Can Survive “Working In the Grey”;

7. A Stressed Employee May See No Sign of Improvement In Their Situation

People can be quite resilient. They can often endure significant stress and pressure and keep striving for success, when they feel motivated and fulfilled.

All of this falls apart quite quickly, however, when they can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. In other words, they can’t see any signs that their situation is going to get better.

This relates to all of the factors above, and here are some examples:

  • Working with underperforming colleagues who never experience any consequences
  • Facing organisational barriers that are never removed, such as rigid processes or bureaucracy
  • No possibility for promotion or progression; or
  • No potential for additional resources or support to perform their work.

Those were just a few, but you can probably come up with a few more examples for yourself.

The point is, if your team members can’t see the potential for a brighter future, they are likely to feel greater stress and frustration about their impossible situation.

This might not be the sort of stress that will lead to a heart attack, but may instead lead to low motivation and looking elsewhere for better opportunities.

Learn More:  5 Questions to Ask An Unmotivated Team Member.

So What Can You Do About That Stressed Employee?

The answer is … it depends!

The first step is being observant to notice potential signs of stress in the team.

Next, start a conversation. We can theorise and guess about what might be going on for your people, but you’ll never know unless you speak to the source.

Start by mentioning what you’ve observed and trying to create a safe space for them to open up. This will require trust and respect on both sides.

Once you have an idea of the cause of stress, you can start to do something about it.

This is extremely important. Making an effort to help your people is critical in helping them see a brighter future.

Sometimes even seeing that you’re making an effort (even if you don’t succeed) can help them to feel better about their situation.

Have you led a stressed employee? What was the cause and what did you do about it? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!


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